Need to Know: Larry Kramer's The American People

The Advocate Magazine

Photography by Benedict Evans

In his new novel, The American People: Volume I, subtitled Search for My Heart, Larry Kramer has taken on American history from the viewpoint of gay people. At 800 pages, it's a doorstop that will daunt many a faithful reader, even if they do know that in it, Kramer has made George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, the Marquis de Lafayette, Baron von Steuben, Lincoln, Andrew Jackson, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Hawthorne, Melville, John Wilkes Booth, Mark Twain, Eleanor Roosevelt, James Forrestal, Richard Nixon, Herbert Hoover, and others gay.

Another man of letters, Andrew Holleran, recently sat down with Kramer in his legendary apartment located in the storied 2 Fifth Avenue residential building (just north of Washington Square Park in Manhattan) to discuss this opus for The Advocate. Here are some choice quotes:

The Advocate Magazine

1. Andrew Holleran: If you started [writing the book in 1975] before AIDS had even emerged, what was the impetus then to write the book? Was it the idea that gays have been written out of history?

Larry Kramer: Oh, I don’t know. Why does every gay writer start out? To write his Proust? And so I wrote my Proust. The title comes from that speech by Reagan which really did hit me, where I knew he was talking about “the American people,” and I knew that I was not part of that crowd that he was talking about. It was so obvious. There has never been any history book written where the gay people have been in history since the beginning. It’s ridiculous to think that we haven’t been here forever... 

2. Do you think gay issues are moving abroad more, now that it’s places like Uganda and Russia that really are the firing line for gay rights and gay oppression? In the last year, we’ve seen a surge of violence against gays in other countries. In the Middle East, ISIS was throwing gays off of rooftops. Is that something that America can export, the idea of tolerance?

We should have our own army as gays. I’m quite disappointed in where we are. I mean, it’s lovely that we can get married, but that’s really small potatoes compared with what we don’t have, which is equality.

3. What do think of the destruction of the gay social space: the bars, the baths, the cruising places? Or do you think it has been destroyed? Do you think it’s still there?

[You’re] making that a basis of gay life, and it shouldn’t be. That was our big problem, that we fought for the wrong things.

For sexual liberation?

Yeah. There’s more to life than whether you can go to a leather bar. That’s part of why we got in all the trouble. I have mixed feelings about Truvada. I’m afraid that people will use it for the wrong reason. But that’s no reason not to be glad that it’s there.

What are the wrong reasons?

To take it as a prophylactic, just so you can go out and fuck at the Mineshaft. So you can take a pill and not worry. And that’s, again, what caused all this trouble we’re in, in the first place. A lot of people died in 35 years. And I guess I came to realize that I’m angry that I’ve been allowed to die. I was much more hopeful earlier on. I’m not saying I’m not hopeful, but I’m not hopeful. And part of what depresses me is how passive most of the gay population is about this issue. So now we have Truvada and you can get laid on Saturday night, and surely, we deserve more than that from 35 years of waiting. We could have so much if we just used the power that was there to be taken, if we could just learn how to take it. Why are there still so few people saying that? Why hasn’t there ever been another Larry Kramer? And I don’t mean that as self-serving.

4. Which president would you single out as the worst in U.S. history?

Reagan, hands down, no contest. What with his being responsible for not attending to gays and AIDS deaths, he was responsible for killing more people than Hitler or Stalin.

5. What would you say to those young activists who look to you as a mentor in terms of how to continue the fight?

Successful activism is about being angry enough and loud enough to be heard. Choose your issues and your targets, and go after them in any way you think you can. ACT UP chose drugs into bodies. We knew little about the many things we had to learn enough about to be successful, so we taught ourselves. Identify your enemies and go after them with threats. Numbers are nice but one person stationed holding a poster up in a strategic location can be effective. You must not be afraid to be obnoxious or to concern yourself with what others might think of you, particularly other gays. You have a mission. You must care passionately about this mission and make it clear and concise. Do not water it down by including too many items on your agenda. This is not all that complicated. Anger, passion, and volume are your weapons. We all have these within us. The courage to let it come out is the necessary frosting for this cake. Be bold. You’d be surprised how strong you are capable of being.

Read the full interview on The Advocate. The HBO documentary about him, Larry Kramer In Love & Anger, premieres June 29, four days after his 80th birthday.

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